Monday, January 28, 2008

Update - Comments

Mea culpa to those who wanted to post a comment but were met with the "Google account" restriction. That setting has been changed - you do not need a Google account to be able to post a comment.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Alien Technology - 3. Theology Part III: effects

image credit:
"The Hive" ©
So what would be the effect of theology on technology? That brings us to the first question from the previous post: "However, saying that theology may be prevalent among advanced beings does not answer 1) how that theology would differ, and 2) if theology is something that stays." The answer to the effect question is so difficult - it depends upon the theology itself: is the theology technology friendly, or not?

If the theology has no problem with science, then there are not limits imposed by theology. There will still be limits imposed by culture or physiology - such things will help affect the direction technological experimentation and exploration takes. But it won't have theological pressure.

If the theology has a problem with science, then there will be limits imposed. On our own Earth there are religious groups that demand that science bend to particular people's interpretations of scriptures. Such demands dictate what is studied, and what isn't. It dictates how data is interpreted. It dictates how it is used. It has a strong influence on the technology.

Others demand that life should be lead as simply as possible, so as to free believers to concentrate more on spiritual development. For them, technological development is not encouraged at all or maybe in only certain niches - medical or maybe for some the technology that helps the religion to spread to others (communication technology, for instance). So, unless they feel OK about developing communication technology, and develop a wish to spread their message to the cosmos, sentient beings whose theology demands a simple life, we may not be able to detect from afar their existence, and to communicate with them.

And, of course, if their world has differing theologies, competing theologies, the effects on technology would be "all over the map." If they devolve into war over these differences, then the effect would be a delay on certain technologies (and an possible encouragement to develop others - types suited for conflict).

Finally, to end this preliminary speculative discussion, some of concerns about contacting aliens center largely around their type of society and theology. Are they interested only in conquering others? Would they treat us as backward barbarians or primitives who have a primitive (and wrong - to them - religion) who must be forcibly saved?

Alien Technology - 3. Theology Part II: continuance?

image credit:
"The Hive" ©
As mentioned in part I, as the mind evolves to take in concepts of mathematical laws, quantum physics (the last two necessary for the ability to become a technological society), and faraway stars and galaxies, as well as a deeper awareness of death, does a need for philosophy naturally arise? And from philosophy, theology?

However, saying that theology may be prevalent among advanced beings does not answer 1) how that theology would differ, and 2) if theology is something that stays.

Let's address 2) first. That is a tough question - some would like to think we can evolve past theology, others would say it is impossible, and others would further state that it would evolve itself (whatever that means). At least for our present minds, it is hard to see how a sentient life would not think about death, and what is after death. Maybe some would be convinced that there is nothing after it, but unless they belong to a hive mind, incapable of complete individual thought, chances are that from time to time some abstract thinking individual would question that. In a sense, atheism is as much a theology as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Agnosticism, or any number of other theologies.

Anyway, if an alien race has no theology, then there would be no theological influence on their technology. That does not mean they wouldn't have a ethical system (bad, good) of some sort that would influence the development, regulation and use of technology. Would even an amoral race have to figure out some sort of ethical system to have a functioning society, even if it is a system based purely on physical survival?

At first, the answer seems to be "yes," but with further thought, I wonder if that is certain. A species that knows it is amoral, knows that each of its members will be selfish, untrustworthy, may be able to still exist - each member would know not to trust the other at all and would have to develop ways of creating temporary alliances that benefit each member enough to engage in the alliance, with full knowledge that the alliance will end as soon as the benefit diminishes, or a better alliance can be formed with another. We have plenty of such examples in our own history, and in our own dealings with each other (watch Survivor and Biggest Loser on TV to see examples).

What is the benefit of morality? The benefit is one that helps the species as a whole survive -where members sacrifice self for the survival of others, for the survival of mates, children, society. Some say, though, if the one making the sacrifice believes in an afterlife, where their efforts will be rewarded, then their act is at the fundamental level still a selfish act. It is just one that looks to the afterlife as more important than the present life.

Of course, if people put too little importance to the present life, then the future of the species becomes endangered - sacrificing self for the afterlife in a way that harms the present world doesn't make much sense for the longevity of the species. And such a sentient race may not last long.

Which is why some feel that theology may not be helpful in the long run. At least one that doesn't care much for present life. And why maybe some sentient life would evolve "past" theology.

But, I can't help but return to the beginning - if abstract thought is the eventual result of evolving intelligence, not having a theology seems contradictory - theology/philosophy specifically deals with abstract thinking. Even a species who may be philosophical without a need to attach a God to it, would, at times, philosophize about a possible God, even if, for them, such thinking is fantastic philosophy.

Maybe such a race would evolve on a planet that experienced more than its "fair share" of catastrophes - say a planet in a system without a Jupiter sized planet to sweep away many of the dangerous meteors (some estimate that without Jupiter, with additional help from Saturn, that the Earth would've been hit 1,000 times more often by meteors), or a planet without a large moon or fast axial spin to keep it from having a large wobbling tilt (and thus prevent the planet from having extreme weather conditions in short cycles) - such a planet could not only give rise to a very resilient species of sentient beings, but also one that was very skeptical of any caring to the universe. At first, maybe they would be even more fierce in theological belief - more desperate to appease the divine. But as catastrophe after catastrophe hitting and wiping out large numbers randomly, without care to prayer or action or belief - maybe a race of agnostics or atheists would rise instead.

Of course, would God allow a sentient race not know that God exist? Ah, we'll save that for another post!

For now, let's return to the issue of theology and technology. How does theology affect technology, in Part III.

Alien Technology - 3. Theology Part I: the rise of abstract thought

image credit:
"The Hive" ©
In speculating about alien species, one area that is the most speculative would probably be theology (with sociology/culture running a very close second). On Earth, theology seems to be restricted to humans only. While other animals on the planet exhibit varying levels of intelligence, as well as social structures, none seem to have any concept of theology or religion (jokes about cats thinking they are gods, while dogs think we are gods notwithstanding). It seems of all the species on the planet at present, humans are the only ones that seem to have a drive, a need even, for some kind of spirituality, for some kind of theology.

Why do humans have a theological drive? Is it a fluke or is it a natural result of the development of advanced sentience?

Primitive, simple creatures will have primitive, simple awareness. For a creature to develop complex awareness, it will need the means to acquire more data, and then to process this data, especially on an abstract level. For instance, an amoeba does not have the capacity to acquire data beyond its immediate environment. It doesn't have much need to be aware of more - it would be a precious waste of energy and resources, and may actually be counter-productive. It is a simpler system, with simple needs.

But as creatures evolve complexity, the need for more awareness becomes more important. A deer needs to be very aware of its environment compared to an amoeba. An amoeba reproduces asexually and rapidly, hunts more by random chance than by design, and because it is a simple structure, can roll up into a protective ball (cyst) until favorable conditions return. It lives in a small environment.

The deer, however, being a larger and more complex system, reproduces sexually and much more slowly, thus it is more important for the individual to survive for the species to survive. Its energy needs are high, and so it needs to be more systematic in finding food. It lives in a much larger environment, replete with more complex obstacles and conditions, including rocky terrain, mud, heat, cold, and rain.

Thus, the deer needs the ability to process more information from its environment to be able to find and fight for mates, food, and to detect intelligent predators as well as to decide how to escape or deal with a complex environment. And it needs to be able to communicate with others of its kind, even if just to warn of danger, mark a territory, or to find a mate. Things an amoeba does not need to worry about.

Some feel that intelligence is not necessarily a natural result of evolution. However, first it seems that as biological systems become more complicated and move into more complex environments, the more there needs to be intelligence to survive.

And at some point, that intelligence finally reaches a point where the creature begins to be able to deal with abstract thoughts - invisible concepts of time for instance. And as the mind evolves to take in concepts of mathematical laws, quantum physics (the last two necessary for the ability to become a technological society), and faraway stars and galaxies, as well as a deeper awareness of death, does a need for philosophy naturally arise? And from philosophy, theology?

Continued in Part II.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


The rate of information related to exoplanet, extrasolar systems, and exobiology (astrobiology) seems to be steadily increasing. Thus, I have a galactic sized backlog of science articles to read, digest, and, of course, comment on that relate to the theme of this blog (speculative discussions on alternative extrasolar biological, psychological, theological and societal realities that could exist).

However, I will be taking a short break as I head off to Mississippi to deliver a paper at the
Mississippi Philological Association. It's a paper dealing with ancient rhetoric and the Lais of Marie de France (one of my other loves is medieval literature).

In the meantime, check out the links on the right-hand navigation panel. If you haven't checked them out before, there are links to some very good (and authoritative) online astrobiology and exoplanet resources, podcats and videos, graphics and wallpapers, and some interesting interactive tools. In addition, there is information on the latest non-fiction books and DVDs related to the topics tackled in this blog. And, for the finale, the blog archive.

If you know of some "can't miss" online resources that relate to this blog, please share!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Alien Technology - 1. Biology/Physiology - Part III

"Enclosure" ©
I was speaking with a mathematics instructor and retired Methodist minister today about logic. He brought up an interesting speculation: for many of hundreds, even thousands, of years ancient Greek logic has held sway. It is an either/or binary type of logic. But with modern advances in the study of DNA (logic with four variables) and computer science and quantum physics (fuzzy logic), binary logic is found to be too restrictive. It does not describe reality - most things are not black and white, off or on. Most things are diverse with a continuum, or range, of values. He wondered what our world would be like now if instead of binary type of logic, the ancient Greeks instead embraced more complicated logic. How would that affect technology?

Why did the Greeks use binary logic to begin with? Most things on the surface seem to be in binaries: hot and cold, night and day, left and right, dry and wet. We have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, and two nostrils in our nose. We have male and female genders. However, that overlooks the other options: warm, twilight, middle. Maybe this binary thinking came from a moral sense - things are either bad or good - no in between. For some, the in between is worst (the Bible picks up on this - that it is better to be hot or cold than to be lukewarm, morally1). It is also a simpler way to deal with things and such logic worked well enough for them. It even worked well enough for computers at first. Our scientific and technological advances are what helped pushed for the increased use of fuzzy logic. I think some of today's problems, as my mathematical minister friend was alluding to, is caused by this clash of classic binary thinking and modern "multi" thinking.

So, for alien sentient beings, some may develop non-binary thinking early on. Let us take, for example, theoretical alien beings on a planet in a trinary star system; there are solar system configurations that would allow for more than just Day - Night: two stars orbiting close to each other with a third orbiting further out, like a planet, with the planets orbiting in between. Now give the planet a large moon and with such an arrangement, there could be:
    • A Main Day (with the main star seen either by itself, with the partner star directly behind or in directly in front of it, or with its partner star beside it),

    • with a Minor Day as its night (the third orbiting star only seen, the other stars "behind" the planet - normally the day side for planets around a solitary star),

    • with the Minor Day sometimes bolstered by the moon reflecting the main stars light, increasing the brightness of the night (though with possible occasional momentary eclipses);

    • or a Main Day (with the main star seen either by itself, with the partner star directly behind or in directly in front of it, or with its partner star beside it),

    • with a Minor Day as its night (the third orbiting star only seen, the other stars "behind" the planet - normally the day side for planets around a solitary star),

    • with the moon sometimes on the Main Day side giving, depending upon the size of the moon and its orbital tilt, either momentary partial or full eclipses, or just hanging dimly in the Main Day sky and thus not adding any light to the Minor Day side;

    • or a True Main Day when all three stars are grouped visually together in the sky,

    • with either a True Night where no star nor moon is seen in the sky opposite of the Special Main Day side,

    • or a Partial Night where none of the three stars are seen, but the moon is visible, reflecting back with its brightest intensity (since it is reflecting all three stars).

This would give the primitive sentient beings an "in your face" non-binary example. Maybe for such beings, the number three would hold such a long and deep importance across all their theologies and cultures throughout their history that thinking in binary would seem unnatural. Maybe this is the type of system the Ramans came from (see Arthur C. Clarke's brilliant Rendezvous with Rama series)!

So, could some sentient species develop fuzzy logic quicker than we did? And how would that affect their early technologies?

We won't necessarily find the answers to these kinds of questions in this blog, but I hope we can have fun speculating on them. And in a rather large universe (and with parallel universes possible), maybe, just maybe, some or more of what we speculate could somewhere be true.

If nothing else, it may help us to see our own world in a new way, to appreciate it on some deeper level (as well as help an occasional fiction writer!).


1. Revelations 3:16: "So because you are not one thing or the other, I will have no more to do with you" (Bible in Basic English) or "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth" (KJV).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Alien Technology - 2. Sociology/Culture

Of the five areas of speculation on alien technology - what it will be influenced by - sociology/culture is, in addition to theology, one of the most speculative! How can we even begin?

One way to begin is to study the social patterns of animals, and how they behave in groups (or if solitary creatures, how they behave). Yes, these are Earth animals, affected by an Earth environment, but it does give us some tools to work with - there is a logic, if you will, involved in why certain social systems instincts develop in animals, a logic of survival. Without this logic of survival, would there be much of a chance for the development of sentient beings?

Another way is to study the influence of physiology and environment upon our (human) societies and cultures, for physiology and environment do influence societies. A society that adapted to a desert environment, for instance, will have different societal pressures than a society that has adapted to a tropical island environment (such things will affect primitive theologies as well, of course). A culture fighting over scarce resources will have different technological needs and desires than a culture that is more isolated and in a lush environment. Thus, cultures, while rather varied, all are patterns, and they have their own logic, usually a logic of survival based on the parameters of their physiology and the physical environment they find themselves in.

By the way, if some of discussions in this blog sound like discussions relating to a mathematics equation, that is because on level it is. As Galileo Galilei said, "mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe." This is one reason why I hypothesize that there is a universal biology, that underlying all the great and incredible diversity in life are some basic universal biological laws which are the "natural" result of universal physical laws (see the blog post "Repeating Patterns - Universal Biologies" for some preliminary thoughts related to this).

There is, though, one variable that is quite difficult to nail down. While animals mostly have social structures that are instinctual, humans have social structures that are a result of a combination of instinct and abstract thought. And it is when we deal with abstract thought that the greatest difficulties in speculating alien technologies arises: abstract thinking can confuse, can create different interpretations from the same data, and influence sentient beings in similar physiological and environmental conditions to evolve very different social and cultural systems.

And let us not forget the abstract desire for power, or the sometimes related desire for self-preservation. Animals protect themselves instinctively, but do not have a global awareness that advanced sentient beings have. This desire for power connected with global awareness affects societal systems, and the direction technology takes (too often a negative direction).

However, studying the great diversity on Earth has drawbacks - it is just one "experimental" laboratory. We don't know the full extent of diversity that can arise with life originating and evolving on very different environments. Universal biology will allow for more diversity than our little blue marble: " There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167).

For instance, maybe life, when it first forms, has different paths it can take, that once a path is taken it is fairly locked in - all life following having a propensity toward a set of behaviors, all of which self-reinforce the path. Thus, just because animals on Earth tend to, on average or in general, behave in a certain way under conditions x,y, and z, it does not follow that we can apply that knowledge to alien species - even if the alien planet is remarkably like the Earth.

Another question to ask is how much of an influence on the creation of social structures, systems is luck, chance, or randomness? How much is a social system the product of the people in it (alien or human) and how much of it is a product of a charismatic leader figure bending the social system to fit his or her own opinion or philosophical view of the life? Are the appearances of charismatic leaders predictable in some way, due to biological and environmental laws? Or are their appearances flukes, luck, chance (*)? If the latter, then here we have another example where you can have two virtually identical planets, with virtually identical life, and still have very different societies. And you don't even need charismatic leaders - as we see with twins, virtual duplicates living in the same environment will still be different.

This leads me to yet another way we could begin to speculate - we can take what we do know, and subtract x, or y, or z and contemplate on what would be the difference in human society, on human technological development for the removal of that one item. It would give us more data to play with - it may not be much, but it is something.

So, when speculating upon alien realities, I posit that most advanced sentient societies would want to survive (various smaller sub-groups may not, of course). Those that do not, while it would be also interesting to speculate on them, they would be of small concern as they would not last long (unless they were zealots about it and wanted to take all other life with them wherever it could be found). And thus, one of the forces will be a logic of survival (though that can sometimes be subverted or overruled by abstract thinking). I posit that there are universal biological laws which, while allowing for a great diversity - greater than we can yet imagine, will have an influence on the development of social systems.

Despite the length of this blog entry, we've only just begun contemplating this particular Alien Realities topic. Coming Soon: "Alien technology - 3. Theology."

* Of course, charismatic leaders would only work on a species that can be emotionally manipulated. However, for such species of advanced sentient life, there can be other ways an individual can have a large impact or influence on the development of its society.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Amoebic Intelligence

I promise we will return to preliminary speculative discussions of alien technology soon but this topic in Physics News caught my eye due to previous contemplations on the importance of intelligence to survival - if intelligence is a natural and expected result of evolution, if it is a natural tendency, a natural law in our Universal Biology then the likelihood of other intelligent advanced beings existing in the universe increases.

"Amoebas Anticipate Climate Change," the Physics News Update reports January 3. In it, there is indication of a extremely rudimentary intelligence in these single celled creatures. For the presence of intelligence, even a very rudimentary one, to exist in the amoeba may indicate that intelligence is common - and that there is a strong evolutionary pressure, if you will, for it to arise and evolve.

Which also shows that Drake's original calculation for fi (percent of habited planets where intelligent life evolves) in his Drake Equation may be too low (he calculated 1%).
The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News
Number 852 January 3, 2008
by Phillip F. Schewe and Jason S. Bardi

AMOEBAS ANTICIPATE CLIMATE CHANGE A new experiment shows that amoebas will slow their motion in synch with periodic adverse changes in their environment, and will, as if in anticipation, even slow down when the adverse condition is not delivered. A team of scientists from Hokkaido University and the ATR Wave Engineering Laboratories in Japan cultured the single-celled slime mold Physarum polycephalum (a member of the amoeba clan) in a bed of oat flakes on agar. Every ten minutes the air was made slightly cooler and drier, which had the effect of slowing the movement of the amoebas down a narrow lane. Then more favorable air would be restored and the motion continued as before. After several cycles, the amoebas slowed even when the adverse conditions did not materialize. Later still, when the organisms have been tricked into anticipating impending climate change several times, they refrain from slowing without an actual change in conditions. One of the researchers, Toshiyuki Nakagaki from Hokkaido (, cautions that amoebas do not have a brain and that this is not example of classic *Pavlovian* conditioned response behavior. Nevertheless, it might represent more evidence for a primitive sensitivity or *intelligence* based on the dynamic behavior of the tubular structures deployed by the amoeba. (Saigusa et al., Physical Review Letters, 11 January 2008; journalists can obtain the article from
The above quoted article "is provided free of charge as a way of broadly disseminating information about physics and physicists. For that reason, you are free to post it, if you like, where others can read it, providing only that you credit AIP."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Comments Are Welcomed!

Just wanted to take a moment to emphasize that comments are most certainly welcomed. Comments that challenge, correct, or debate are as welcomed as those that add to, support, or pose additional questions. This blog is an discovery process and a brainstorming process for me, and, I hope, for others as well, and it is helped along by comments.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

SETI@home looking for more volunteers

SETI@home looking for more volunteers

– The longest-running search for radio signals from alien civilizations is getting a burst of new data from an upgraded Arecibo telescope, which means the SETI@home project needs more desktop computers to help crunch the data.

Since SETI@home launched eight years ago, the project based at the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory has signed up more than 5 million interested volunteers and boasts the largest community of dedicated users of any Internet computing project: 170,000 devotees on 320,000 computers.

Yet, new and more sensitive receivers on the world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and better frequency coverage are generating 500 times more data for the project than before. The SETI@home software has been upgraded to deal with this new data as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) enters a new era and offers a new opportunity for those who want to help find other civilizations in the universe.

"The next generation SETI@home is 500 times more powerful then anything anyone has done before," said project chief scientist Dan Werthimer. "That means we are 500 times more likely to find ET than with the original SETI@home."

According to project scientist Eric Korpela, the new data amounts to 300 gigabytes per day, or 100 terabytes (100,000 gigabytes) per year, about the amount of data stored in the U.S. Library of Congress. "That's why we need all the volunteers," he said. "Everyone has a chance to be part of the largest public participation science project in history."

The 1,000-foot diameter Arecibo dish, which fills a valley in Puerto Rico, is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center operated by Cornell University with funds from the National Science Foundation. Since 1992, Werthimer and his team have piggybacked on radio astronomy observations at Arecibo to record signals from space and analyze them for patterns that could indicate they were transmitted by an intelligent civilization.

When the team's incoming data overwhelmed its ability to analyze it, the scientists conceived a distributed computing project to harness many computers into one big supercomputer to do the analysis. Since SETI@home was launched, other distributed computing projects have arisen, from folding@home to predict the three-dimensional tangle of a protein to the newly-launched cosmology@home to model possible universes. Most are now on a platform called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), which was developed by SETI@home's director David Anderson so that the various projects could share resources.

"There are now 42 projects on BOINC, and, until now, there has been enough computing power to go around," Werthimer said.

What triggered the new flow of data was the addition of seven new receivers at Arecibo, which now allow the telescope to record radio signals from seven regions of the sky simultaneously instead of just one. With greater sensitivity and the ability to detect the polarization of the radio signals, plus 40 times more frequency coverage, Arecibo is set to survey the sky for new radio sources.

These improvements also prime the telescope for an improved search for intelligent signals from space.

"The multiple receivers help us weed out interference better and make us less susceptible to thinking that things terrestrial are extraterrestrial,"
Werthimer said.

Werthimer noted that, despite the fact that UC Berkeley has been analyzing radio signals from space since 1978 on various telescopes, no telltale signals from an intelligent civilization have yet been found.

"Earthlings are just getting started looking at the frequencies in the sky; we're looking only at the cosmically brightest sources, hoping we are scanning the right radio channels," he said. "The good news is, we're entering an era when we will be able to scan billions of channels. Arecibo is now optimized for this kind of search, so if there are signals out there, we or our volunteers will find them."

SETI@home has been funded by various organizations over the years, including the Planetary Society and Sun Microsystems, and continues to be supported by individual donations from its volunteers.

Further information:

SETI@home Web site (<>)


Sanders, Robert. " SETI@home looking for more volunteers." Press Release. UC Berkley News. 2 January 2008. 17 January 2008. <>

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


The post Drake Equation has been updated - the javascript error has been corrected again (blogger loves to insert break tags on you if you are not careful), and some additional information and commentary included.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Introduction to The Drake Equation

The Drake Equation

I really shouldn't go on without at least an introductory mention of the famous (and controversial) Drake Equation created by Dr. Frank Drake in 1960.

Dr. Drake's equation is a tool for estimating the number of intelligent advanced civilizations presently in the Milky Way galaxy that we would theoretically be able to communicate with.

The Drake Equation is


where N is the number of civilizations we can communicate with at this time in the galaxy, and where:
  • R = average star formation rate (10/yr)
  • fp = percent of those with planetary systems (50%)
  • ne = average number of planets that can potentially support life per star with planetary systems(2)
  • fl = percent of the above planets where life actually begins - life started on Earth very quickly, water and the complex organic building blocks for life are common in the universe (100%)
  • fi = percent of habited planets where intelligent life evolves (1%)
  • fc = percent of intelligent life that develop communication technology capable of transmitting into space(1%)
  • L = lifetime of all such civilizations on a particular planet - civilizations may collapse and rise again, or nearly wipe themselves out and the survivors rebuild (10,000 years)
The values in the parentheses are Dr. Drake's estimations. Using Dr. Drake's original values we arrive at N=10. As new data rolls with increasing frequency, these values tend to change. For more discussion see below. 

  • Liquid water is required for life, 
  • type M stars are too cool, 
  • type O and B stars are too short lived, 
  • life will develop if given a chance, 
  • developing intelligence gives a survival edge, 
  • and technologically advanced civilizations do not consistently prematurely destroy themselves because of their technological advances (global atomic war, for instance).
R, fi, and ne Discussion

As mentioned above, as new data rolls with increasing frequency, these values tend to change. Presently, the value for R is thought to be 6 per year. And, as mentioned a few times before in other postings in this blog, we are increasingly discovering certain intelligent traits first thought to be reserved just for humans cropping up in other animals: birds that make and keep tools, ferrets purposefully lying, and dogs mapping language to mention just a few. This indicate that the first estimation for fi (a mere 1%) may be too low.

If, however, sentient, intelligent life is so rare that we are the only one in the galaxy, or even the universe, then the vale for fi may be infinitesimally small. But, if we are the average result of habitable planetary system, and if life is found to have once existed on Mars, and to exist on Europa, then the value for fi becomes 33% (and ne becomes 3). That life formed quickly on Earth, a wet rock orbiting an average star in a nondescript part of the galaxy, then maybe, just maybe, it can form in extrasolar systems as well.

Calculate N for Yourself

See the Drake Equation Calculator on the right. Type in your own values for the variables in the Drake Equation to calculate N.

Habitable Zones and Habitable "Hot Spots"

Personally, I believe the habitable zone estimates are a bit conservative. For instance, Jupiter's moon Europa, despite being outside of our solar system's Habitable Zone, may have liquid water beneath its icy surface, and many scientists feel that Europa could support life. Thus, Habitable Zones could actually be larger, or a system could have Habitable "Hot Spots" (which includes not only planets, but large moons as well) in addition to its Habitable Zone . Maybe even an occasional type M stars could have habitable planet (see Color of Life for some discussion about life in a M class star system).

In addition, the equation does not take into account life that is spread to other planets by advanced civilizations (whether unintentionally from exploration or purposefully from terraforming). And finally, life is constantly surprising us with its great diversity here on Earth - our definition of what is life may need to be expanded.

Additional Drake Equation Posts.


Schilling, Govert and Alan. M. MacRobert. "The Chance of Finding Aliens." SETI: Searching for Life. Sky and Telescope Magazine. 15 January 2008. <>

Image credit: © Lynette Cook

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Alien Technology - 1. Biology/Physiology - Part II

"Enclosure" ©
An article I recently read about "stereo noses" of certain insects got me to thinking about how some technological advances/abilities may be rather common because of a common need for communication in space and the universal nature of space: while different beings may communicate on their planet in a number of very different ways - by light, sound, touch, or smell for instance - because of the near vacuum of space, communication is somewhat limited. One cannot communicate by touch, sound, or smell through the vacuum of space; however, one can communicate by light, or rather by the electromagnetic spectrum (radio waves, x-rays, light, and so forth). So no matter how a species communicates amongst its members on their home planet, they are rather restricted to how they can communicate in space.

Thus, many feel we may fairly confidently look to the electromagnetic spectrum as the most likely means for communicating with most alien species, it may not be the best way to search for indications of intelligent life on other worlds. Most assume that intelligent life will, at some point eventually, if they survive long enough, develop technology that will include some forms of electromagnetic communication / transmission of information which would either "leak" out into space and/or would purposefully used for space communications. These signals would eventually be detectable by sensitive radio telescopes (by those who believe that such intelligent life would use mostly the radio band) or by optical telescopes (for those believe some advance civilizations would use lasers to communicate, at least for communication in outer space).

However, not all species may use the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate with each other on their home planet, and thus not leak out any evidence of their presence or of their advanced civilization into space and, eventually, if we are fortunate enough, be detected here on Earth by our telescopes.

Take, for an extreme example to make my point, a water world where the intelligent species has developed wholly as an underwater organism. Smell, light, and radio waves are not the most effective or efficient means of communication in water, due to the properties of water. But sound is a different matter - sound is a very effective means, which is why whales and dolphins, among others, are able to communicate over long distances (sometimes thousands of miles) via sound alone. Using electricity would be difficult, and so development in that area could be very slow.

As mentioned in a previous post, such a species may also be slow to leave the planet - a creature that needs to be immersed in water has a much heavier load to launch into space than a creature that needs to be immersed in air. Water is dense and very heavy, launching from under water and breaking free from the planet's gravity (especially if the gravity is even heavier than Earth's), carrying enough water to fully immerse one or more creatures, not to mention the mechanisms to not only oxygenate the water and remove waste air (and other wastes) which would be more complicated than those to care for a terrestrial creature, all would add up to a much much more difficult endeavor than it is to launch from the surface, in air, with air breathing terrestrial passengers.

However, it could be argued that such a species would tend, then, to rely wholly on robotic space probes (after they tackle the problem of creating such probes with electricity in a underwater environment from scratch - though one could suppose a heavy reliance on pneumatics, which while adding weight to the craft, would add far less than a water immersed passenger). In which case, they would need a means for communicating with the probes, and thus reveal themselves to other planets.

Although, let us pick, for a another extreme example, an intelligent species that deaf or nearly deaf with rudimentary vision and which communicates mainly by smell and touch. Such a species would not feel the need to develop TV or radio, though they may develop something akin to the teletype where they can, by touch, feel what is being transmitted. Such a device could easily be updated where the information is transmitted through the air via radio waves, which get converted by a braille type mechanism or even a pulsating mechanism which while producing sound as a by-product, it is the variations in the vibrations that can be felt by sensitive appendages which is how the message is deciphered. Thus, such a species would use a means of communicating over distances that would leak out into outer space and which could be eventually detected by radio telescopes on, or orbiting around the Earth.

Finally, someone once mentioned, in a discussion about the Drake Equation, that some species may be paranoid about broadcasting, even inadvertently, their presence to the universe and may restrict/shield and otherwise block signals from leaving their planet - there may be more advanced civilizations out there that we can not detect by our SETI or OSETI telescopes.

Such beings may be paranoid because their physiology causes them to be especially xenophobic, or because of their theology makes them so, or because their ruler is. Or it may be because of a negative experience they had with another alien species. Or it just may be they logically thought about it and saw how violent their own people can be toward each other over differences and how more technologically advanced civilizations tend to easily conquer less advanced civilizations and figure they should play it safe (there are those here on Earth that present this very argument against our having SETI programs which purposefully try to make contact with other worlds).

We've had many examples on Earth of cultures closing their borders to avoid contact from other countries because of the paranoia of the leaders - mostly to limit the influence of "subversive" ideas from other cultures that may cause the people to reject the leader, or the paranoia of a people in reaction to a negative experience with outsiders. And so it could also happen with at least some other alien worlds.


"Optical SETI - OSETI."
Life in the Universe. 8 August 2001. 13 January 2008. <>

Rockefeller University. "Two 'Noses' Are Necessary For Flies To Navigate Well." ScienceDaily. 29 December 2007. 13 January 2008.>

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Alien Technology - 1. Biology/Physiology

"Enclosure" ©
One important area of research for engineers is the area of human factors science or design -understanding and applying the properties of human capability to the design of technology (a somewhat oversimplified definition). The capabilities of the human being has to be taken into account. Some are obvious factors (when you are not speculating about non-human species) are such things as: humans are bipedal, have five fingers, and their knees bend inward not outward like some birds, to name but a few. There are many human factors that influence technology including, but by no means limited to, from how something is physically designed, to safety mechanisms that need to be installed, to what kind of assistance the human operator needs to operate the technology.

What does this mean for aliens? What it means is that what works for a human may not be the best solution or the solution chosen by an alien. An avian sentient species would need greatly different technology for sitting and control mechanisms (I wonder if a sentient creature that is used to flying, would look to fly beyond the atmosphere sooner than a terrestrial or especially an aquatic sentient species?). A creature that looks more like an octopus than a human would need different seating and control mechanisms as well. Having more fingers, lacking any fingers, having a tail, having more than two eyes, hearing different frequencies, not being able to hear at all, and any number of other physiological differences will affect what the technology will look like, how the species would communicate, and thus affect how we (humans) can find and communicate with an alien race.

And it is possible that there could be some intelligent species that cannot use technology (at least as we commonly define or have commonly come to think of as technology) or which may not have a pressing need for it, or are much slower in developing it because of their physiological limitations. Say, for an extreme example, there are long lived creatures with very slow metabolisms that communicate through touch or biochemical means and who carve out structures within boulders or large masses of rock by secreting acid - such creatures could eventually develop a complex society that discovers complex mathematics, and which ponders the deep questions of "being" and "existence" and the meaning of life; but certain technological development could be very slow - at least the type of technological development that includes physically exploring space and the ability to communicate beyond their planet.


Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. 12 January 2008. <>

Human Systems Integration Division at NASA Ames. 19 December 2007. 12 January 2008. <>

Alien Technology - Preliminary Thoughts

image credit:
"The Core" (c)
In speculating upon alien realities, one inevitable topic is what would alien technology be like?

OK, so how can we speculate, predict? One aspect is easy - the laws of physics, including the nature of space-time, are universal (or, at the very least regional). We can make some predictions based on predictions we can make for our own technology (for instance, the development of materials that can hide objects from light and sound).

But after that, much of alien technology will be influenced by the alien's 1) biology/physiology, 2) sociology/culture, 3) theology, 4) physical environment (planetary as well as the space environment), and 5) any outside influence (from another alien culture).

And as we will see later, all of the above are somewhat interconnected - each influencing the other to some degree.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Methuselah - Addendum

The Methuselah - 13 Billion Yr Old Planet (Garden of Eden?) post has been updated, thanks to a reader's feedback who correctly pointed out that I mislabeled M4 as an open cluster. I also addressed the issue of the low metallic nature of early globular clusters more clearly - early stellar nurseries should not be capable of producing planets, yet here we have at least one that was formed 13 billion years ago. The probability of life forming on that planet is rather low (at least life as we know it) as it is most likely a gaseous planet, but not zero. And it does raise the possibility (this blog is about speculation, after all) that other ancient planets exist - including a smaller terrestrial planet orbiting in the same system as Methuselah which current methods do not allow us to detect. And that raises the possibility, even if a slim one, that life did arise far earlier in the universe than first thought.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Methuselah - 13 Billion Yr Old Planet (Garden of Eden?)

In 2003, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered something amazing deep in the M4 globular cluster 7,200 light years away - something that shouldn't be: a planet, 2.5 times the size of Jupiter, orbiting 23 AUs from a pulsar (a rotating, pulsating neutron star), PSR B1620-26. The primary star, the pulsar, has a companion white dwarf orbiting approx 1 AU out.

According to current theories, planets could not form in the early universe (1) - for one thing, early stellar nurseries shouldn't have enough heavy elements to create stars with planets. But somehow at least one planet was formed in the young universe - while the universe is 14 to 15 billion years old, this planet, dubbed Methuselah, is nearly 13 billion years old.

Imagine that - a planet almost as old as the universe itself. Could a civilization have arisen there? Or died out and rose again (that old of a planet, life would have time to restart several times)? And in the final years, moved out into the stars?

I can't help but think of old races often called "The Ancients" or similar such nomenclature in science fiction tales - very old races that seed the rest of the galaxy before ascending or mysteriously moving on to other galaxies, leaving this one behind.

And if life first began in this universe on such an old planet (or, more likely, a smaller sister planet), could that then be the real Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve where exiled from?

Of course, orbiting a pulsar is dangerous for life for two reasons: 1) a pulsar is a result of a supernova which tends to destroy worlds (strip away the atmospheres at the very least) and 2) pulsars give off extremely intense beams of radiation along the lines of its magnetic axis - if any planet is in the path of the beam of the rapidly spinning star, the radiation would be too intense for life to survive or form (2).

As we have seen in a previous post, Planets, planets everywhere, planets can reform around a pulsar - from the rocky debris of the original planets, blasted from the supernova explosion.

Scientists, however, do not feel that Methuselah is a "reconstituted" planet. One theory is that the planet (and maybe others too small to be detected by present means) was captured from a sideswipe with another younger system later on - a system that existed for 10 billion years before wandering too deep into the core of the globular cluster, where distances between star systems can sometimes be less than 1 light year.

Recall from an earlier post, An Aside - Are There Alien Worlds in Our Own Solar System?, there is some evidence that our own solar system has "adopted" objects from an alien solar system passing by in the distant past - possibly when it was still in an open globular cluster (scientists theorize that our sun was first formed in an open cluster).

In fact, the scientists feel that the white dwarf companion was also "adopted" by the primary neutron star. They theorize that the pulsar did have a dwarf companion at first, but when a yellow star system came too close, the gravitational tug-of-war kicked out the dwarf and the yellow star took its place, along with at least one of its planets. The new system then moved out from the core of the globular cluster - reducing any chances for further collisions.

In this new binary system, some of the mass from the yellow star got sucked into the pulsar, speeding up its rotation, giving it the incredible spin rate of 100 revolutions every second. After some millions of years, the yellow star became a red giant and then a white dwarf.

So it is quite possible that the Methuselah, and any other world(s) circling PSR B1620-26, were "adopted," right along with their sun. If so, could one of them developed life before being captured by the pulsar/dwarf system? Early planetary systems would most likely be made up of gaseous planets - there shouldn't be enough heavy elements for terrestrial planets to form. But then we didn't think any planets as old as Methuselah should exist either. Maybe, just maybe, a small terrestrial planet does exist along with Methuselah. And even if not, life is not necessarily restricted to terrestrial planets - life could begin and thrive on non-terrestrial planets (albeit, such life would not be life as we know it).

One problem such life would face is that being captured by the pulsar would prove to be quite the dramatic change. If they are lucky, the radiation beam from the pulsar would point far above the ecliptic, thus avoiding being bathed in intense radiation every 1/100th of a second; but even then, the difference in light (and heat) would be devastating as it is rather certain the planets' new orbits around the binary pair would be different than when they were just circling around their single parent star. But as we see on Earth, life, once formed, is tenacious and will find a way to survive, even during the occasional mass extinctions.

For intelligent life, depending upon their level of technological advancement, they could migrate to a sister world circling the new binary system, one that was now more hospitable than their home world. Otherwise, they would be forced to adapt to their new, darker, colder world. Or, if they were highly advanced at the time the collision was imminent, and finding themselves in a crowded neighborhood, could explore nearby systems and move to one that was safer -though it is doubtful any planetary system in the core of cluster would be safer, especially any system that was lingering in the core, and thus increased chances of itself colliding with another star system. No, more likely they would have to figure out how best to ride out the collision.

At first scientists thought planetary systems couldn't survive long in a cluster, especially a globular cluster - but increasing evidence is showing that sometimes this is not the case. Although, lingering too long in a cluster is still thought not the best environment for life; for one thing, a globular cluster has many stars in relatively close proximity - a supernova from a nearby star can have devastating effects for life on the planets of neighboring star systems and being in a globular cluster, chances for being near a supernova are rather high. For the Earth, a supernova 30 light years or closer would be quite devastating for life - for other planets, the distance could be greater, depending upon how thick their protective atmospheres are (to show you how protective our atmosphere is, for astronauts outside the Earth's atmosphere, a supernova 3,000 light years away could be deadly).

But, it is not impossible. That extrasolar system could have been one of the earliest gardens of life in the universe. 12.7 billion years ago the planetary system was formed. Our own system is "merely" 4.5 billion years. It is thought that the first 10 billion years Methuselah led a "normal" life around a normal sun like star. And if it was, was that life able to evolve to a space faring species? Are there descendants scattered about the Milky Way (or at least in that region of the Milky Way)?


1. Early stars were poor in heavy elements, and thus could not form planets, but when they died, they produced heavy elements which then became part of new nebulae within which new stars were born - and with heavy elements now in the mix, allowing planets to finally be formed as well.

2. While pulsars are formed from massive stars, white dwarfs are formed from the average main sequence star - most stars in the galaxy will end their lives as white dwarves.


Britt, Robert Roy. "Primeval Planet: Oldest Known World Conjures Prospect of Ancient Life." Science. 10 July 2003. 6 January 2008. <>

"Extrasolar Visions - 'Methuselah' PSR B1620-26 c." Extrasolar Planet Guide. 5 January 2008. <>

"Messier Object 4." The Messier Catalog. SEDS. 21 August 2007. 6 January 2008. <>

Mukai, Koji and Eric Christian. "Destruction of the Earth by a Nearby Supernova." Ask an Astrophysicist. Imagine the Universe! 1 December 2005. 5 January 2008. <>

"Oldest Planet Challenges Existing Theories."
This Week in Science. 11 July 2003. 5 January 2008. <>

Richmond, Michael. "Will a Nearby Supernova Endanger Life on Earth?" 8 April 2005. 5 January 2008. <>

Links Updated

The Exoplanet Links have been updated: not only have I added more links, but I have also divided the Astrobiology links from the Exoplanet Links, giving each their own section.